“Not Guilty!” The Biblical Doctrine Of Justification



 Not Guilty!

Justification means to absolve, to vindicate, or to set right.  It is a judicial act of God based upon Christ’s completed work.    It is his divine declaration of “not guilty” expressed toward sinners.  So we can see that Justification is the very opposite of condemnation.  While it does not ignore God’s righteous requirements, it nevertheless declares that these requirements are all fully met in Jesus.  It is important to note that this act of God does not make people righteous but it declares them righteous, based upon the complete righteousness of Christ.  The business of making people righteous is reflected in a second great biblical doctrine, that of sanctification.  This second doctrine speaks of the drastic change in character accompanying those who have been justified.

As we know, the rediscovery of justification by faith was the basis of the great Reformation.  Some have even called this doctrine the “mainspring” or the “main hinge” of the Reformation. It seems strange today that almost five hundred years after the Reformation began this doctrine continues to remain one of the least-understood mysteries of the Bible.  Let us look into it.


Paul in introducing the subject of justification states in Romans 3:21 that both the law and the prophets testify concerning it.  This is just another way of saying that the whole Bible talks about it.  Then Paul goes on to mention how this important doctrine is seen in two Old Testament characters, in Abraham and in David.

In Genesis 15:6 it is said: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”  To credit in the Hebrew language is to think, to reckon, or to account.  Because of Abram’s faith, God did an amazing thing, he reckoned him as righteous.  Later in Genesis 26:5 God says of him: “Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.”  How could such a thing be?  God says that Abraham kept all his laws over half a millennium before the law was ever given!  Obviously through justification all the claims of the law were fully satisfied in advance.

It is clear that this amazing credited or imputed righteousness has something to do with us Gentiles, because it was given before Abraham was ever circumcised.  Thus he becomes “the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (Rom. 4:11).  We see again in Romans 4:23-24: The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness– for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from
the dead.”

We also see that another famous Old Testament person experienced this credited or imputed righteousness.  His name was David, and he was king in Israel.  We know that David once fell into the awful sin of adultery and later to hide his sin he committed murder.  David then sought the Lord with great penitence and finally was able to say: Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him” (Psa. 32:1-2; cf. Rom. 4:7-8).


Let us try to understand how this justification or credited righteousness works.  We know from the New Testament that it is ultimately based upon the completed work of Jesus our Messiah.  In Romans 5:18 we read: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all  men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:19 it is said that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Hebrews 10:14 goes on to make plain that by the one sacrifice of himself, the Lord has made us perfect forever.

How incredible all this is!  We are made perfect forever in Jesus!  All this sounds very much like Ecclesiastes 3:14.  It says, “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.”  As the popular theologian, Dr. J.I. Packer says: “Justification is decisive for eternity, being in effect the judgment of the last day brought forward.”* Paul sums it up another way in Romans 8:30: And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified.”

It is also clear in the Bible that justification goes far beyond what mere obedience to the law could ever accomplish.  In Acts 13:39 we read: ““Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”

Thus the Bible makes plain that the medium of this justification is belief or faith in Jesus.  In Romans 3:25 it is said: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”  It is obvious in the scripture that even this faith is not something wholly dependent upon us, but is also from God.  Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.”  We remember the story in Mark 9:24 of the frustrated father and his demon-possessed son.  He cried out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”  Jesus immediately answered this cry and healed the boy.  No, not even our faith is from us alone. Someone has described this saving faith of ours as being like the hand of a beggar reaching up to God.


So we see that the immediate benefit of justification is the remission of all sin, with the sinner being declared righteous.  This is a declaration from God himself and from heaven’s highest court that the believing sinner is now justified.  It is a legal decree of “not guilty” or an acquittal that applies equally to all who believe.  As the commentator Warren Wiersbe states, “No Christian is ‘more justified’ than another Christian.”** Thus the worst sinner who is justified by faith in Jesus is as much justified as the great evangelist and man of God, Billy Graham.  While there can be a difference in the degree of our sanctification, there is no difference in the degree of our justification.  God sees us all through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.  We now appear to him as if we had never sinned.  We are all regarded as being righteous just as Christ is righteous (1 Cor. 1:30).  Thus he has made us “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6 NKJV).

Through justification we now have peace with God and with our own conscience.  In Romans 5:1 we read: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Through the justification that comes by grace and through faith we are delivered forever from the tyranny of guilt.  The Bible adds for us in Romans 8:1: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Paul asks in Romans 8:33-34: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died– more than that, who was raised to life– is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  What a great salvation God has procured for us sinners!

There is more.  Not only are we justified in God’s eyes and free from condemnation but we are ushered into God’s eternal kingdom.  We are ushered in as righteous people.  In Romans 8:17 we read this precious promise: Now if we are children, then we are heirs– heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”  The implications of this incredible promise still remain far beyond the limits of our understanding.

Justification also brings life, even eternal life for all people who believe (Rom. 5:18).  It marks the beginning of the abundant life or the fullness of life spoken of in scripture.  It is to be a life unfettered and unhampered with guilt, condemnation, fear, dread or by the great drudgery of works righteousness.  It is a life where we enjoy his blessing and his presence forever.

                                                                                                 -Jim Gerrish

Publication date: 2006

* J.I. Packer, Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification.
** Warren Weirsbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, on Gal. 2:15-16.
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons, oil painting, “Not Guilty,” by Abraham Solomon, 1854. License, Creative
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